Labour must keep marching left to appeal to the youth vote

21.06.17 Originally published by the Guardian

My earliest political memory was watching my grandmother with narrow eyes and a heavy sigh tear Tony Blair’s first Labour manifesto into pieces while on the phone to party head office to cancel her membership, breaking generations of family tradition. I sensed her grief but was too young to understand. I asked why she was leaving Labour and she said it was because they were scrapping clause IV on nationalisation, which she explained as “a promise to put working people in charge of their own lives”.

My family is from Dorset, a blue county since the dawn of time, not that this stopped my mum and my auntie dropping Jeremy Corbyn flyers on doorsteps, or my teenage cousins blasting Liar Liar out of the car stereo down the high street. My grandmother would have been so proud, not just of us but of all the young people in this country who are standing up now for all the things that matter. And I don’t need this week’s Ipsos Mori poll to tell me that: I see it every day.

That Labour just won its biggest share of the popular vote since 2001 is certainly thanks to Corbyn’s courageous manifesto, which moved beyond the language of anti-austerity to connect people with a genuinely inspiring alternative vision for the country.

But policies aren’t enough. What built the confidence to vote for them was tens of thousands of people knocking on millions of doors: 1.2 million in key marginals. Marginal seats like Battersea and Sheffield Hallam, branded “unwinnable” by many in the party, were won this way. And they were won, despite all the obstacles, by students, impoverished, black and brown communities, demonised and young people left behind by the Tories.

Crowded around a single laptop in the kitchen on election night, it took us a while to process what we were looking at. As the minutes passed, cynicism gave way to awe. Not so much at the prospect of more Labour MPs in parliament – let’s face it, they’re a mixed bunch – but because after years of Tory austerity fear politics no one really dared believe so many millions would find the strength to vote for hope. Remembering my grandmother, I know this “new kind of politics” isn’t really so new at all; it has a long, strong history that a whole new generation is just starting to remember. So, the question is: what next?

Those people out knocking on your door aren’t foot soldiers acting out of automatic party loyalty. It’s a new generation, with expectations and opinions, and if the party wants to keep us, it’s going to have to listen to us. Simply put, it’s time for Labour to live its values and keep marching left because we know now these policies are far from unelectable.

Corbyn should also take this opportunity to challenge the direction of debates around free movement, immigration and inequality. We’ve not won yet, and the scapegoating of migrants for the broken wreckage of our welfare state is the Trojan horse that just brought the Tories back to power, and it must be stopped. Labour must put itself on the right side of history and make clear that it holds those with wealth and power responsible for poverty and powerlessness – no one else.

MPs still missing this point might consider instead that a strong stance on migrant-bashing will be a precondition for Labour’s alliance with the community organisers and young activists who have just proven themselves powerful enough to propel a marginalised backbencher to party leader.

Another precondition will be that they deliver on Corbyn’s most ambitious pledge: a new kind of politics. In practice, that means democratising the party, empowering members and making MPs more accountable. Momentum must also commit to this process if it’s to retain its activists and cultivate strong community and political leaders. It means creating a party culture that values more than votes and won’t spin like a weather vane with each electoral cycle. Instead, Labour must make itself an ally in building a movement for social justice that is deeply rooted in communities.

This will not be easy. While his staggering electoral success prompted lip service from Corbyn’s former critics, Labour remains deeply divided. Corbyn’s natural inclination will be to build bridges, but party unity is not more precious than the principles that define that party. I wouldn’t presume to know what most Labour MP’s principles are – it’s often difficult to tell – but it’s time for them to show us. A sincere commitment not just to Corbyn as leader but to the politics he represents should be a non-negotiable precondition for sitting on the Labour front bench.

The bulk of the party first laughed at Corbyn and then fell over themselves to boot him from the leadership and his supporters from the membership. Labour has been dragged – often kicking and screaming – back to its roots by a groundswell of ordinary people taking action. They stormed the stage with Corbyn not only because he has an unbroken record of representing us, both in protest and in parliament, but because he makes people feel heard.

When Corbyn calls for a “new kind of politics”, it speaks of a profoundly refreshing humility: a recognition that yes, democracy means our voices matter, be it in the country, in the community, in the party; that doors should be knocked, not just to win votes but because we actually value what the people on the other side of them have to say. It remains to be seen whether that’s a call the rest of Labour is ready to respond to. But whatever happens, the new kind of politics is already here.

 

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Mijente on how living with Trump is teaching people to create, not wait for the world they want to see

This is the second instalment of the Still we dream series, where grassroots voices from across the migrants’ rights and racial justice movements in the US talk about responding to Donald Trump’s election and how they’re building their movements. They’ll talk about everything from winning the public debate to building rapid-response systems to immigration raids. And we’ll be thinking about what might help us meet the challenges ahead for UK movements against racism and for migration justice. 

Mijente – ‘My People’

In the first instalment of Still We Dream, I spoke to Peter Pedemonti, co-founder and director of the New Sanctuary Movement in Philadelphia (NSM). This migrant-led, inter-faith organisation is developing a rapid response systems to raids, taking the sanctuary movement on to the streets. This time, I interviewed Reyna Wences, a Latinx immigrant community organiser based in Chicago and co-founder of Mijente, a radical, national Latinx and Chincanx organising network that launched in December 2015. Evolving from the #NotOneMore anti-deportation campaigns, Mijente – meaning ‘my people’ – foregrounds intersectionality and community activism to build Latinx leadership and the movement as a whole.

Marienna: What’s the political situation like in Chicago right now?

Reyna: In the early days of Trump’s presidency there was a lot of panic and uncertainty and many more questions than answers. We were watching him enact all these executive orders and trying to figure out how local government would respond. But pretty quick we started seeing a lot more community members coming out to lead workshops, share training and resources. That’s been really positive. There’s still a lot of fear, though.

Marienna: How does that compare to community life and movement building under Obama? Direct action and disruption of raids by Immigration & Customs Enforcement (ICE) – started during the historic crackdown on undocumented people by the Obama administration.

Reyna: The growing criminalisation of immigrants, more and more deportations—all that started in 2008 with Obama. In those years we were focused on trying to cut ties between police and ICE, highlighting the way the criminal justice and immigration systems were being blurred to criminalise immigrants.

What we’re seeing now is a growing disregard for some of the victories won on that front. Police are collaborating more with ICE to turn people in and there’s a greater ICE presence in court rooms. Chicago is seen as a ‘Sanctuary City’—public officials will say immigrants are safe here but the reality on the ground is that ICE are coming into our communities. Even if the police aren’t explicitly collaborating we know ICE has access to their databases. There’s a so-called ‘gang database’ here in Chicago. we don’t know how people are on it but we’ve had reports of babies being on these databases, which is crazy. ICE uses them to pick and choose who they’ll go after, and it hints at a larger problem because 90 percent of the time the people on these things are black and Latino men. So we want to push for more transparency and cut ICE’s access to it.

But with Trump at least there’s been a shift in the public narrative. We’ve had more media attention on raids and deportations particularly of victims of domestic violence and DACA recipients when they get picked up. In the early Obama years, the Not One More mobilisations against deportations highlighted personal stories of people being dragged into that deportation pipeline. Towards 2013 there was an increase in public campaigns and petitions but we were just fighting case by case. So one of the big questions was how to continue that case work but make it sustainable.

One of the core ideas that came out of that was that those directly affected by deportation, incarceration and so on – they should be leading the movement.

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Marienna: This is when non-violent direct action started to become more central?

Reyna: Yes. We started putting our bodies on the line to highlight that intensity and create a moment in which people had to physically decide whether to be on the side of the oppressor or on the side of the oppressed, of people putting their bodies on the line to try and keep families together.

We don’t just think about direct action as the actions themselves, as getting arrested to get press attention, or just as symbolic; it is very much part of a deeper process to re-claim the space denied to us, even in the movement itself. Often, those risking arrest are undocumented. They are really risking it all because they don’t have status. And the way they often explain that choice is that they’d rather risk arrest on their own terms, for something, instead of getting caught up in a raid any other day.

Marienna: This really shows how effective Mijente and allied groups must have been in raising people’s confidence in the possibility of change, and in you as a group.

Reyna: Yeah, a lot of it is building confidence, building trust for people who’ve spent so many years living in the shadows and as second class citizens. When people come into contact with us at the start there’s a lot of hesitancy around sharing their stories but as we engage and listen and connect our different identities and build relationships. People ease up and the people who have decided to take that stand, they do it not just because they trust us but because they trust that they’re on the right side of history.

‘Our liberation is connected to black liberation in that we cannot be free if the black community in the United States is not free’

Marienna: Mijente describes itself as not simply pro-Latino, but also pro-woman, pro-queer, pro-poor, pro-Black, pro-indigenous, pro-climate because OUR community is all of those things and WE care about all of them.’ It’s an inspiring but very ambitious manifesto, asking people to commit themselves to so many things at once. How did you win that as a starting point?

Reyna: Mijente as a network was created to take the next step towards building a Latinx platform that is pro all these things. I think we get so used to being ‘anti-’ that sometimes we miss ways to talk about what we do believe in. A point of particular commonality with other groups and movements nationwide was the movement for black lives, Black Lives Matter. We knew the Latinx community had to figure out a way to articulate itself as pro-black, and to call out our own community for being anti-black, which it often is. Rarely do we see immigrant experiences depicted as black experience. African origin immigrants are rubbed out and mainstream immigrant rights movements have always cast it as a Latino issue. This manifesto gets at the need to acknowledge that. People came into the space knowing that it was always meant to be pro- all these things, so coming into it forced people to ask themselves: are they ready to do that?

Marienna: How do you centre the movement for black lives and black justice in all this?

Reyna: There was a moment in the fight against deportations that people realised the criminal justice and immigration systems are intertwined – and for a reason. We see huge profits made from immigrants and forced labour of those incarcerated in private prisons and detention centres and we expect that to grow under this administration. Through that it also became more evident that our liberation is connected to black liberation in that we cannot be free if the black community in the United States is not free.

That means we have to check ourselves because we come from a different experience as immigrants in this country. What that check means to me is that as we recognise that our identities and struggles are connected, we also recognise they are not the same. Undocumented immigrants with light skin have very different and in many ways easier experiences than undocumented immigrants of colour.

Figuring out what these strategies are going to look like really began with an ICE blockade direct action. This was the culmination of a long process of collaboration, confidence and relationship building with the Black Youth Project 100. That was when our strategies started to change; we could see that just looking at the faces of those taking part. And it hints at what’s possible. Now, we’re having very broad conversations about what the Sanctuary City really means, with Black Lives Matter and BYP100, plus the Arab-American Action Network because we’re all being targeted by this administration and so we need to reach out.

‘When it became clear Obama wasn’t listening to us, we had to turn away from the mainstream and go back to our communities’

Marienna: How’s the definition of ‘sanctuary’ evolving to meet this new situation?

Reyna: It’s been adapted by different communities in different localities to meet their needs. In Chicago it looks different to Arizona, where, being close to the Mexican border, they’re having to resist raids and deportations at an incredible rate. With Trump’s election, and even when it became clear Obama wasn’t listening to us, we had to turn away from the mainstream and go back to our communities, listening to the needs of those hardest hit. And we’ve been working on Community Defence Zones that are about sharing and arming each other with the resources and tactics developed in the past and evolving them because with Trump so much has changed.

Something else I’d like to share is there was a recent story about a Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) recipient who was detained after sharing her undocumented statusat a press conference. As a result of that some people have started voicing reservations about undocumented people coming out of the shadows; saying maybe it’s safer not to disclose it. Some of that comes from a good place but it’s a place of fear that takes agency away from us. It fails to recognise that sharing our stories is an act of political resistance. Telling us to go back into the dark does more harm than good; it just repeats what the system has been telling us all these years: to not come out, to live an underground existence outside of society. All we’ve seen since 2010, with undocumented youth refusing to hide in shame, has driven all our movement has achieved.

Marienna: The undocumented LGBTQ+ community has played a powerful role in raising consciousness by ‘coming out’ in both senses. It’s scary enough coming out as queer in a homophobic society, without – as so many do – simultaneously risking support from the LGBTQ community by coming out as undocumented. But the courage to do that seems to be forging powerful links between the LGBTQ and migrant liberation movements. How did all that start?

Reyna: The Coming Out of the Shadows rallies were named to honour the gay liberation movement and the experiences of undocumented people declaring themselves. It all started with the Immigrant Youth Justice League, which I also co-founded in 2009. Many of us identified as members of the LGBTQ community, and I was one of many that came out as queer before coming out as undocumented. The message I got from society was definitely that it was even worse, much worse, to be undocumented than it was to be gay in America. But when I did choose to address my undocumented status, I could draw a lot from my early experiences of hiding and struggling with my sexuality.

Looking at the organisations on the ground doing the most radical, intentional work getting to the root of the issue – they’re all led by women of colour, often queer women of colour. And I think I will follow women of colour, queer or not, because I have faith that those who are most directly impacted are going to be the ones to lead us to liberation.

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Marienna: You’ve cautioned against strategies for movement building that are always on the defensive, reacting to attacks from the state.

Reyna: In the Obama years, we had to respond every 6-8 months to some big announcement, which often gave protections to some while stripping them from others. When he would say things like: ‘I’m only deporting felons, not families,’ and we knew that was a lie so we spent a lot of energy trying to prove it, presenting counter-arguments and also pointing out that ‘felons have families too,’ you know, a lot of us have felons in our families. And that’s a point we had to argue a lot within the movement as well because lots of people wanted to throw those felons under the bus to win some crumbs from the administration. Dealing with that sort of thing is exhausting. Constant reaction and defensive fighting, apart from the fact that it can be divisive, burns people out. They get tired. It leaves little room for self-reflection, sharing and envisioning work that brings people together.

Now, that seems to be happening. We’re making a very broad effort to be less reactionary and our demands are actually becoming more coherent as a result of that. When Trump was elected people saw pretty quickly that just because things were getting worse didn’t mean reactionary and defensive work was becoming more effective. With the Muslim travel ban, for instance, that first time, the airports were packed with people and then what happened? Days went by, crowds dwindled and by the time the second travel ban was announced some days ago, we’re not seeing the same reaction on the ground.

I believe in the power of reacting in massive numbers but I’m becoming very wary of the unsustainability of it. It’s only part of the answer.

Marienna: Can you share any more practical insights from your years bringing different communities together?

When I first started organising with young undocumented people there were a lot of questions around people coming into these spaces as allies with their privilege being their documented status, and in addition to that often citizens and white citizens. When we started organising Coming Out of the Shadows, we were very explicit about our intention to amplify the voices of undocumented people. At times that was pushed back by those with status who wanted to know why as citizens they were being asked to take a step back. It wasn’t that they were being pushed out of the space – although we have used undocumented only spaces and people of colour only spaces – saying that this alienates communities, pushing away people who want to understand our struggle and support us. For many of us, the answer to that is that we shouldn’t have to educate every white citizen ally that comes into our spaces. That doesn’t mean they don’t have a place but rather that they should be guided to a person or group that has capacity to offer that education, so the labour doesn’t always fall on the most marginalised.

Marienna: What’s your message for migrant communities here in the UK and their allies, who might be looking at what you’ve achieved and wondering: how do we get there, and what will keep us going until we do?

Reyna: I also want to say to everyone over there in the UK: we see you. We see the resistance and every action we’re able to see and share with our people, they give us hope. I think it gives them hope, to know they’re not the only ones fighting against these same systems of oppression. I don’t know that we’re going to find the answers to all these questions about the path to liberation but I hope this moment will bring us together, to imagine the world we want to see and find the strength to get there.

Originally published by Red Pepper

We must go big, bold & migrant-led, says New Sanctuary Movement

27 January 2017

This is the second instalment of the Still We Dream series, where we’ll hear from grassroots migrant rights and racial justice organisers across the United States. They’ll share how they’re building their movements in Trump’s America and tackling racial privilege not just beyond the movement – but to transform it within. 

The City of Sanctuary movement in the US goes back to 1979, when Los Angeles introduced a policy banning police officers from asking arrestees about their immigration status. Throughout the 1980s this was replicated in many states and hundreds of religious congregations hid and transported refugees fleeing conflict and US-backed death squads in Honduras, El Salvador and Guatemala. At the movement’s height it operated an underground railroad reminiscent of the one that operated during the Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade. In the 1980s, more than 500 congregations were secretly hosting refugees, moving them from Mexico to find sanctuary in cities across the US.

Today, there are over 200 sanctuary cities across the US; outposts of a principle treasured and upheld by a powerful, national movement. This week, we’re interviewing Peter Pedemonti, co-founder and director of the New Sanctuary Movement in Philadelphia (NSM). This migrant-led, inter-faith organisation is developing a rapid response systems to raids, taking the sanctuary movement on to the streets.

Marienna: It’s been a few days now since the inauguration, how are you guys feeling?

Peter: We had our People’s Inauguration on Friday and it felt really good to focus on something active. We had 20 different groups there: Catholics speaking alongside trans people and former sex workers and it felt really good to see everyone coming together like that. In a way, now Trump’s actually here, after all these months of anxiety and anticipation I feel like we can engage, which is good. But it’s a mixed reaction. There’s a lot of anxiety and fear about what he’s going to do and how that will impact our communities – but the flip side is that we’re seeing more people coming out than ever, ready to fight.

Click here and scroll down to see what the People’s Inauguration looked like

Marienna: How did the NSM get started and how has it evolved?

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Peter: Here in Philly we started in 2007: clergy, immigrant members and folks from other migrant rights organisations. It was all volunteers. No one was organising the faith community even though many congregations were being hit by the fallout of immigration policies. We started with education and accompaniment – walking through the process with families facing deportation, making sure they had trustworthy lawyers and going with them to court, or visiting them in detention. That was all about building relationships. We work with 21 congregations at the moment, half are migrants. And the same with our staff, we make sure at least half the board is migrant and becoming more migrant-led has been really important.

It’s one of our key values: that those affected are the experts in what they need. Ultimately we’re working towards a shift in the balance of power in favour of those most marginalised, and if that’s what we want to see we need to do it in our own organisations.

It’s a solidarity structure we’re continually working on – being a mixed organisation of migrants and allies – but how it’s worked developing strategy is that we start with listening campaigns, interviewing migrant members about what issues affect them. And then for each campaign we do strategy retreats with migrant working groups and they set the direction. Then we found we were creating a lot of segregation, with our migrant members and white allies really working in quite separate spaces and we were like ‘well this isn’t really working, we need to figure out how to bring them together.’ So we did shift a little.

Marienna: NSM was central to ending collaboration between local officials and Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE). How was that victory won and what did it mean for the community?

Peter: This is something that really started after 9/11. The collaboration between immigration agencies and police started under Bush but really escalated under Obama. At first it was opt-in but they kept changing the rules. In Philly our mayor kept stalling, sympathetic in meetings but never taking action. He wanted piecemeal changes, tied very much into this ‘good immigrant, bad immigrant’ narrative, but we wanted everyone to be protected from the impacts of collaboration, whether people were pulled over for having a broken tail light or had been arrested for violent crime.

Marienna: Here you have some quarters wanting to protect refugees only or ‘good immigrants’ only, so it’s contentious to come out and say: ‘no, this shouldn’t be happening to anyone and we want protection for everyone.’

Peter: It was and it still is. Some of our members still aren’t 100% on board, though being in a faith organisation really encourages us to reflect on the ideas of forgiveness and redemption. I remember, we were working a lot with the Cambodian community, whose kids were getting beaten up in school and formed gangs to protect themselves, and later got involved in drugs and some violence. That also pushed us to challenge this ‘good immigrant, bad immigrant,’and highlighted how many people get left behind by that.

Marienna: Talk about Sanctuary in the Streets.

Peter: Sanctuary in the Streets started under Obama when he announced an escalation of raids against central American communities. The sanctuary offered by a congregation is no good if ICE come and raid your house, you can’t get there. So the idea was to bring the congregation to them, holding an interfaith service outside the house. We have a raids hotline open 24/7, the idea being we get a call and mass-text everyone who’s signed up to show up at the address and show solidarity and shine a light on what’s happening. We had 64 sign up, then Trump won and suddenly hundreds of people were signing up in hours. There’s over 1000 people on the list now. So now we’re running trainings, with people willing to risk arrest also signing up for civil disobedience: to encircle the house or the vans and block their path.

Marienna: what do you think has raised the courage or the determination for so many people to be signing up to risk arrest?

Peter: It was really a response to something much bigger, with Trump coming in and the programme being a concrete way of getting involved in standing up to everything he represents. I think it’s been successful, again because it’s so bold.

It’s disruptive, but in a way that fits with and communicates the peaceful values we hold.

It’s not the whole answer, though. Stuff like Sanctuary in the Streets, which is very defensive, is also very draining and hard to sustain. Moving forwards we need to make sure that while we’re fighting back against Trump we’re doing something positive locally. We learned under Bush that even when things are terrible at the federal level, we can have a real local impact. For example, we have another campaign to stop migrants’ cars being towed because they’re not allowed to have a driver’s license. We had people being left on the side of the road with their kids at 2am. Plus it costs like $1000 to get the car back, which for many of our members is a month’s wages. And we were able to get the city to reinterpret the law in a softer way, to at least give them 30 minutes to call someone to come and get the car. Again, that’s solid, concrete results for people in the here and now and that balance is important: between fighting back but always pushing for something positive.

Marienna: You’re organising across not just boundaries of race and class but also faith, and one of your next priorities is incorporating more mosques into Sanctuary in the Streets.

Peter: We have not been successful in organising mosques. It’s something we’ve been trying for a couple of years, and I think I’ve learned some big lessons about the importance of who you have in the room when you start, because that does form the culture immediately, whether you want it to or not, and many of the things facing the Muslim community are quite unique. To form something and then invite other people and groups into it is much harder.

We are building relationships with mosques but it’s very challenging also because of the level of government spying and intimidation of the Muslim community. There was this one mosque I was working with and I’d swing by for Friday prayers and then suddenly this big story broke about the New York Police department infiltrating mosques in New York and Philadelphia and there I am, this random white dude walking around probably looking like a cop, which wasn’t very helpful. There are very high levels of mistrust, and for very good reason. I think we’d really need to start with that tried and tested method of a listening campaign within the Muslim community to identify what they want to work on, and work on that rather than bringing them into what we’re already doing. We haven’t had capacity for that yet, but it’s something we’re trying to figure out.

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Marienna: What’s going on in American hearts and minds? How did we go from Obama to almost-Bernie to probably-Clinton to Donald Trump?

Peter: When Trump came on the scene 18 months ago, we dismissed him as a clown who’d have his moment and then go away.

Marienna: – that’s what a lot of people here said about Brexit.

Peter: Exactly. I remember reading about UKIP and the resurgence of neo-Nazis in Germany and right wing nationalist groups popping up in Europe, and here we just have Republicans and Democrats, but watching that enabled us to put a name to it, to see: ‘oh, Trump, he’s a nationalist if not a fascist,’ and after that we started taking him a lot more seriously. It’s been a challenge for us to name what he is, but listening to Europe has really helped us to see what’s happening here in the US with a clearer lens.

To answer your question, there’s these census reports showing that in 20 years white folks will lose majority in the States and that has a lot of people very scared. They’re scared of losing their power, and there’s been this trend recently in poor white communities getting that life spans are getting shorter, there’s a lot of drug addiction and for the first time the next generation’s quality of life is worse, not better. People see themselves as victims, somehow.

Marienna: Looking forwards, where do you think the movement needs to be a year from now and what are the key principles that are likely to get us to that critical mass moment?

Peter: Wow, that question makes me realise that with managing crises like we are right now we’re maybe a little too stuck in the moment, putting out fires – Trump, the election – and we do need to keep looking forwards, too.

We’ve been talking about the importance of going beyond defence, beyond ‘Trump’s terrible’, to put forward an alternative vision.

Marienna: Trump’s terrible, but here’s something beautiful.

Peter: Yeah, I like that! And nobody’s really moving on this because it’s really difficult and really contentious, but there are a lot of poor, white people that voted for Trump, and who’s going to start organising them? The trade policies that allowed all the factories in the US to go abroad, they left a lot of people here unemployed and are also devastating the global south, so they migrate to the global north and come up against a really hostile environment. So someone needs to reach out to them and start effecting change there. And nationally, I think we need to do some soul searching, especially with so many people coming out onto the streets for the first time, we need to know: what are we really fighting for? And how do we channel all this energy in a way that’s sustainable?

Marienna: What’s your message for migrant communities over here, and their allies, who might be looking at what you’ve achieved and wondering: how do we get there?

Peter: I feel what’s been most important for us is to be deeply grounded in our values and take risks based on those, whether it’s Sanctuary in the Streets direct action or hiring people who are undocumented. Looking back at the things I’ve been most proud of in our past, we’ve been at our best when we’re really bold. Bold things that connect with people’s values and give people the space to play that out.

Also we recently went to a racial reconciliation workshop, evaluating organisations on a spectrum from ‘no people of colour’ through tokenising through to being led by people of colour and having authentic engagement. Now in our history we definitely moved across that spectrum, and prioritising that and being ready to slow down to protect and strengthen those principles, in the long run we’ve built a stronger organisation because of it. What’s helped more than anything is listening and being ready to change. I mean really make big changes to our organisation according to what migrant members and communities are saying.

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Originally published by Red Pepperand produced for Right to Remain

The extended interview transcript is available on the Right to Remain website

Stop Charter Flight Deportations: international weeks of action launch today

9 January 2017

The forced removal of over 50 people from their homes on a charter flight to Jamaica in September last year renewed outrage over the mass forced removals being carried out via charter flights – and heated debate. Those with young children were advised by the Home Office to “do their parenting via Skype” 4,500 miles away. Most had spent their formative years in the UK and have British families. One of the fathers from that plane writes:

“I feel like I’ve been kidnapped.”

“I was one of the 42 people deported, taken from my partner and kids to a country where I have nothing and know no one. I lived in the UK for 17 years, since I was 14… The lawyers in the UK took all my money, and now I have so little I can’t even afford a bed to sleep on. I can’t find a job and I have no family here. My kids in the UK need clothes and food that my wife can’t afford with the small support given to her. I don’t care about myself I just want to help my kids. Why hurt my kids too?” – anonymous blog post, Deported Voices

But stories like this one have galvanised grassroots resistance to charter flight removals and today marks the beginning of two consecutive and international weeks of action against this government’s policy of mass deportation.

What’s it all about?

Charter flights are about the routine and systematic removal, by force, of large numbers of people to a select list of countries, decided and enforced at the highest political level. As many immigration raids and arrests will occur as needed to fill up these massive planes, in order to minimise costs. According to the Corporate Watch report, these mass removals are a motivated by: the need to meet immigration targets; stifling rebellion; as a so-called ‘deterrent’; and as a bargaining chip in foreign policy negotiations with destination governments.

“Charter flights are targeting long-established African, Asian and Caribbean communities in Britain – dividing families and deporting people who have built lives in the UK, who have parents, partners and children here, people who have lived most of their lives in Britain, students who have not finished their courses, those who have sought asylum and protection, people with serious health problems and others who are long-term carers to elderly and disabled relatives. Targeting so many people who are integrated members of their communities and wider society is a divisive act of racist discrimination.” – End Deportations

Forced removal charter flights currently run to Nigeria, Ghana, Jamaica, Pakistan and Albania. Afghanistan is soon to be added to the list. In August 2015 there was an emergency ban on charter flights to Afghanistan due to escalating conflict in the country, but it has now been lifted. As former barrister and renowned immigration expert Frances Webber writes, this is the first formal ‘deal’“to stipulate the return of citizens whose country is in the grip of an intensifying war” although the British government admits that since 2007, “over 3,000 child refugees had been forcibly returned to countries at war once they turned 18 – including 657 to Iraq and over 2000 to Afghanistan.”

What’s going on during the weeks of action?

Several migrant-led demonstrations have been called at key sites across London and are listed below. If you cannot join the protest, please help spread the word.

There are also protests planned in Nigeria and Jamaica, and various actions planned in local communities across the UK. In addition, organisers are appealing to independent groups and individuals to target and apply pressure to Titan Airways, which provides many of the charter planes, and Tascor who provide the ‘escorts’ which independent investigators have found to be employing ‘inhumane’ practices including lying to detainees about whether and when they will be forcibly removed.

TAKE ACTION: See below for the list of key actions planned, but the End Deportations events calendar is being constantly updated – to check for updates click here. You can also email watchdeportations@riseup.net

LEARN MORE: to find out more about charter flights and mass removals, check out our summary of Corporate Watch’s 2017 factsheet based on its report: Collective Expulsion: the case against mass deportation charter flights.

 

Published by Right to Remain

 

Bringing Solidarity Home – Comment Is Free

Until she saw her baby, the mother would not eat, drink or move. She sat soaked and trembling, looking out across the Aegean for a rescue boat we knew wouldn’t come. Three hundred people had been on her boat when it sank. All night, we volunteers had been seeing in the rescue boats, providing urgent care and gathering names of the missing. We’d had reports that two newborns were flown to hospital in critical condition. Chances were that one of them was hers, but the police wouldn’t let us drive her to the hospital. Rescued at sea by the authorities, she was formally “in detention” until she registered. “No papers, no hospital,” they said.

Hours before, I’d performed CPR for the first time in my life, on a little boy who hadn’t survived. I was in shock too and haunted by the notion that this mother’s presence might somehow make the difference between life and death for her child. At the very least, she was being robbed of her chance to say goodbye. We sat shoulder to shoulder, in silence, with her relatives around her. “Where do you hope to go?” one of the other volunteers asked in a weak attempt to dent the silence.

“To Britain,” a relative replied. “To live free.”

The refugee camps have always been there, swelling quietly with the very human consequences of the political system that governs our lives. But with the age of televised warfare, the lights came on. War is becoming real for us, for the first time in a long time. Here are its orphans, its exiled freedom fighters and grieving mothers, camping out right on our doorstep. Conflict, climate change, globalisation: it can’t be some grisly reality TV show after all; here are its refugees, real human families throwing themselves on the southern steps of Fortress Europe.

What happened next was extraordinary. There’s the side of the story we know: politicians scapegoating, talk of swarms and cockroaches in the press; a thundering Brexit vote followed by a spike in hate crime so sharp it gave the nation whiplash. But then there’s the other story, less often told: that well below the radar of the mainstream media, tens of thousands of people from all nations, of all ages, cultures and political persuasions, started giving up jobs, studies, relationships and reliable wifi and heading for the borderlands to do their part. They flooded in to do what politicians and aid agencies wouldn’t: from illegal ocean rescues and calling out police brutality to running art therapy classes, feeding thousands and sorting sky-high piles of donated clothes across the continent from Norway to Calais.

I feel enormously proud to have been part of that movement. I learned a lot as a solidarity volunteer in Greece. Some of those lessons were traumatic – I still have nightmares a year later – but I think I learned as much about politics in weeks in Camp Moria as I did in years at university. The most personally challenging and painful lesson was a simple one: it will never be enough. However many volunteers we have pulling 15-hour shifts, politicians in halls of power far away are doing more damage in a week than we could undo in a lifetime. For all their summits, resolutions and deals, in 2015 one in 269 people crossing to Europe died; this year it’s one in 88.

With deprivation and incarceration systematically inflicted on people in the name of border control, when we say “refugees welcome” that is a commitment to campaign for radical change here at home – or it’s meaningless.

In December 2015 I was taken out of action by a serious spinal injury. Being forced home was infuriating. I started providing online support, fundraising, anything to fight the creeping sense of powerlessness, to stay connected. I started following the news again, watching in horror as governments closed the Balkan route and levelled camps at Calais and Dunkirk. Autonomous humanitarian aid was being criminalised, camps sealed off from independent observers and mass deportations introduced. Meanwhile, the EU-Turkey deal started edging “the refugee crisis” off our front pages; it was someone else’s problem now. Europe had paid a handsome price to make it so.

Coming home, it’s strange trying to figure out where you used to fit in. Media headlines about immigration stop being abstract and become about people we know. Apathy and discrimination start to hurt instead of just irritate because we’ve seen their casualties starving and cold and the empty orange lifejackets floating in the sea. We know what it costs. We’re not supposed to just fit back in when we come home. We’re supposed to be opening eyes. The fight for refugee and migrant rights out there can’t be won without a radical political shift here, in the heart of Fortress Europe.

The solidarity-based approach developed and demonstrated by the best of the independent volunteers has enormous potential to achieve this. It has the power, not just to save lives, but to change lives; to heal the divisions in our communities torn by politicians scapegoating the poor and the undocumented for a crisis they created.

It’s not about charity. It’s about recognising shared responsibility for the state of our shared world; understanding we have always been connected.

By refusing to provide safe passage, refusing its fair share of refugees and detaining over 30,000 undocumented people every year, the British government is reinforcing the precedent that black and brown lives don’t matter. If that passes unchallenged, we are all forced into a more dangerous, divided and desolate world. And with states cracking down on independent solidarity work, simply saving lives is becoming a political act.

Humanitarian aid without a political movement is like trying to extinguish a forest fire with water one teacup at a time. Every time they raze Calais to the ground I am reminded of that painful truth.

One of the most urgent battles for asylum and immigration justice in the UK is against detention. This pointless, brutal practice is the most harmful aspect of the system. It cripples the ability of detainees to fight their own legal cases or speak out for justice. With a growing protest movement at detention centres such as Yarl’s Wood, ending detention is a fight we can win right here at home. That means everything from raising awareness to the direct action of the fearless grandmas who brought immigration raids to a halt in Glasgow. A movement that broad is ambitious; but ambition and vision are all that will stop our descent into barbarism.

Work that builds practical solidarity infrastructure and political resistance which work together, from the heartlands to the borderlands, outlines the way forward: projects such as These Walls Must Fall, which combines campaigning with a solidarity-based approach to migration and asylum support to empower those affected to fight back for their rights as part of our community. We’re taking on a multi-million-pound industry which profits from the system and has close ties to the government. But if we win, that victory would be felt well beyond our borders.

If walls can fall in Fortress Britain – they can fall anywhere.

Originally published by the Guardian online & in print, 29th December 2016

Entry IV: The Sinking of the Nameless: Recollections of a Volunteer/Journalist

Great tragedies are supposed to have names. The Titanic, the Lusitania… Their dead live forever in the stories we tell about them and the living fight for change in their memory that they might not die in vain. This is just a boat of ‘migrants’ that sunk in the Aegean, another number, another regrettable spat of collateral damage in the border war. But not to us, the ones who were there when the rescued came into harbour. Not to me. Last night was the most traumatic of my life. Back home, I spoke with confidence about how ‘borders kill’ – but now I’ve seen it with my own eyes and I will never forget the sinking of that nameless ship.

Official Count So Far: 35 confirmed dead (5+ children) – not that the officials are bothering much to keep counting… Many still lost at sea & families waiting for news including Named Shorooq, still in Greece searching for her children.

My friend Ashley and I were supposed to drive back across the island of Lesvos to Mytilini yesterday, but every couple of kilometers along the beach we saw another dinghy coming in without enough volunteers to meet them, so we stopped, and stopped, and stopped again. The sky was blue but the sea was furious, the wind was biting. Freezing children bundled into cars, battles for access to the bus, ambulances called for the sick… it’s chaotic and distressing, but it’s the daily reality on the beaches here and it’s remarkable how quickly you adapt, find a way to be useful and to cope. We were not prepared to cope with what was coming.

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Another two-storey wooden boat that just made it to the beach

We hadn’t eaten all day so we decided to stop at the port in Molyvos to grab some food. We were a few bites into our bread when the sirens started: the coastguard was coming in from a rescue. We ran to the water, where volunteers, locals and medical teams were converging, armed with emergency blankets. Rumours flew that this was a bad one. We expected people who’d been in the water, but had no idea the boat that went down could have had 300 souls on board.

Later that night, I would meet Gabriel, a photographer I knew from Skala who’d seen it happen from the cliffs. He was the one to call the coastguard. He showed me two photographs, taken he said just a minute apart. The first was a blurry image of a two-storey wooden boat – the kind that started appearing on the beaches during last week’s storm, left at terrifying angles on the beach with broken windows and emergency blankets fluttering from the railings. In the second photograph, the boat was gone completely; all that remained was a pool of orange life preservers, shining in a great expanse of blue.

Ten or fifteen children came off that first rescue boat, which headed immediately back out to sea. I threw my camera around my back and put my arms out to receive a young Syrian boy from the coastguard. He couldn’t have been more than nine years old. I ran for the medical team, transfixed by his face, that looked so peaceful but for the dullness of his skin and the blue in his lips. I lay him down by a doctor, who was already working on a little girl, so I got my first crash course in CPR. It was terrifying. I was so afraid of hurting him, of doing something wrong. 30 chest compressions. Hold the nose. Two breaths until the chest rises. (Please, look this up on YouTube if you’re coming out as a volunteer.) His mouth was freezing. Sometime into the second round another medic arrived and we worked as a team. The boy started coughing up water, and once he was breathing right we stripped him of his wet clothes. Then the medic was gone again.

I’ve been an atheist all my life. But that was when I started praying.

I wrapped him up and lifted him onto my lap, tearing off my jacket and covering his body with mine. I don’t know how long we sat there. I glanced over and saw Ashley holding a little girl by her ankles while the medics tried to get the water from her chest. Every time I saw a medic I had them check him. They were overwhelmed with critical cases and they said he was okay. But he didn’t look okay to me. I was rocking him back and forth, talking constantly in English and my pathetic amount of Arabic, trying to keep him awake. I’ve never felt love as desperate and immense as holding that boy in my arms. I don’t even know his name, but I will never forget his face.

A good friend warned me recently that you cannot be a volunteer and a journalist. Journalists do not get involved. I thought about that a lot as I held this boy, who in that moment had only me in the world, and watched photographers circling like vultures, getting in people’s way, shoving their lenses where any decent human being must surely know they don’t belong. And all I could think was: If it’s true you have to choose, I don’t want to be a journalist anymore. Finally the ambulances came, and in a few minutes he was bundled in the back and whisked off with the others. From what I hear, it sounds like he didn’t make it. They’re saying most of the children died. They had been in the water too long.

We thought it would be over then, but I was woken from my daze by the second siren; the coastguard was back with another boat full of people. I took an Afghan woman from the boat. She gripped my neck like she was still drowning, but had no concern for herself. “My mother, my brother!” She screamed. I tried not to think of my own mother drowning. “Boats are still coming,” I told her in English. I knew she understood but she made no response. “We have to care for you now.” At first she wouldn’t let me. I sat her down and blanketed her before working on the clothes. “Please, please, my mother is a good woman.” I nodded. “So many people who come here are good,” I said.

Her name was Sultana. She was alone now, she kept saying. We got her changed, shaking and crying, and in that moment feeding her water was the most beautiful thing I have done in my life. The local priest had opened the church for shelter so I took her inside. Recovery position. Coughing up the last of the water. I took her name and promised I’d look for her family, that she should stay where it was safe and I’d come back for her. She kissed me and kissed me. I did come back for her, but she was gone, and in the chaos I couldn’t find her again.

Nameless5There was one more boat after that and fewer people this time. By now, the coastguard had given up the search. Locals had opened their tavernas and cafes for shelter, making caldrons of tea while elderly Greek women rocked motherless babies in their arms. There were so many families split. I ended up working with a translator to help the International Rescue Committee (IRC) compile a list of names. I was dealing mostly with the mothers. They were relieved to have someone asking after their children. Typically they stayed calm while they spelled each name and gave the age of each child. Then when it was done, and the helplessness set in, they broke down and wept and beat the floor. I held them as they cried, feeling useless. One of them, a beautiful Syrian woman called Named Shorooq who I’d helped change before, had lost her husband and all three children. But she was one of many.

When the translator left I hid in an alleyway where no one could see me and sat down to cry. It didn’t last long – it couldn’t. I wiped my face, stood up and went back. The first person I ran into was a volunteer asking for help with another mother. She sat in a doorway with her wet clothes still on, refusing everything, even water and sugar tablets. She would take nothing until we found her two month old infant. I spent a long time trying to figure that one out. Once she recognised me as ‘the person on the phone’, her eyes started following me wherever I went. Every time I took a call, there was hope in her eyes. I started gesturing ‘no news’ as quickly as possible.

Then the news came: there were two very small babies at the hospital, but it looked like they wouldn’t make it, and we couldn’t bring the mother to the hospital because the police weren’t letting anyone in. She had been rescued at sea, so she was ‘in detention’ until she registered and got her papers. No papers, no hospital, they said.

In my shell-shocked state of mind, and with the mother’s eyes always on me, I became fixated on this singular injustice. While I assisted the other volunteers, I kept returning to it. I argued with the police. I argued with the sole UNHCR staff member. No one with the power to do anything seemed willing to try. I was haunted by the notion that the presence of its mother might make the difference between life or death for that baby. At the least, she was being robbed of her chance to say goodbye. My rage became unspeakable.

Suddenly, like an alien from another planet, good news appeared for the other mother: ‘Shorooq family found.’ They’d been dropped somewhere else and were being driven back. I grabbed a translator and headed to where I’d left Named. It sounded like it was all of them, but we didn’t want to risk it so we told her all we knew was that some relatives were coming. She started crying again, kissing my hands, refusing to let me go. I decided to wait with her, as much for my sake as for hers. I needed to see something good happen.

We held each other as we waited and I listened to her pray. Every time a van came she was moving with impossible speed, despite her exhaustion, her nose pressed against the windows looking for her babies. In the third van, her husband came, carrying her youngest, 2 year old Razan, in his arms. There Nameless4were no others.

She fell to the floor and screamed, thumping his legs as she wept, still gripping my hand. This wasn’t what we’d been waiting for. It was almost worse than nothing, as though in the presence of this little child all she could see was the absence of the other two, the death of her hope. I told her more people were coming, that names were still being found, children were still in the hospital. It was possible they were alive. But I didn’t really believe it, and neither did she. Her daughter, Maram, was six. Her other son, Malak, aged three. Eventually, she took Razan in her arms like she would never let go.

I left them grieving together and went to give the other mother some answers. I couldn’t bear to see her waiting any longer. I explained there were babies at the hospital receiving intensive care. We could not bring them to her, or take her to the hospital to identify them. I was sorry. At the very least, I would find someone to help see her to Camp Kara Tepe in the morning, to be fast-tracked for her registration papers. Naturally, I went to the UNHCR guy. As calmly as I could, I told him I accepted there was nothing to be done for her tonight, and that she knew it too, but please could we just talk about what would happen tomorrow, so I could tell her something. Anything. He stared at me and made vowel sounds. “Please, can you take her name at least? We can have someone look for her tomorrow, make sure she gets where she needs to go?” He shook his head. “Registration is the police’s responsibility.” I asked him exactly what his responsibility was. He ignored me.

Now I was really incredulous. I felt sure he could do something, or at least try. Anyone with phone numbers and the will could have done that. “You know the police will not listen to her, even if they understood Arabic,” I argued. “Please, can we talk together and try to figure out how to do our best for her?” He walked away from me, but with the help of the IRC, we formulated a plan to have them collected in the morning and another family member fast-tracked so she didn’t have to go to the hospital alone. I think I knew then she would be going to identify the body. I don’t have words for how that conversation felt.

I spent the rest of my time in a waterfront café, getting a few people fed while Ashley used her smartphone to help people contact their families back home. Across the table from me, a volunteer from Drop in the Ocean, an incredible Norwegian organisation, was comforting a teenage girl named Sara whose entire family had been lost at sea. She wouldn’t take any food. An LCD TV screen shone down on us from the ceiling, showing adverts and a basketball game: a window to another universe that never seemed so unreal. Then the news came on, and we watched images of ourselves from the hours before. It was so surreal.

Eventually we found somewhere to stay. We talked a little, just to hear each other’s voices I think, and I cried quietly until I fell asleep. This morning I was straight on the laptop looking for coverage, which was a typically disappointing experience: all superficial reports that a few ‘migrants’ have drowned off Lesvos.

So I wanted to write this and post it today, a small contribution to the record of what really happened and my way of remembering the Nameless.

From what I could gather from the refugees last night, around 300 people were packed onto two-storey boat that looked like it was built to hold a third of that number. In the rough conditions, the weight was too much, and the top floor crashed down onto the bottom and the whole thing went down in less than a minute. People would have been trapped underneath, the children’s lungs rapidly waterlogged by the force of the water. The irony is, those with vulnerable companions pay extra for the wooden boats, because they’re meant to be safer. So more women and children, more elderly refugees and those with disabilities, went down.

I’ve been thinking about the smuggler than ran that ship, how much profit he made from those extra hundred tickets and paid for with lives. Apparently he escaped in a second boat. I wonder if he’ll be haunted by this catastrophe for the rest of his life. But it doesn’t really matter. As long as this war continues, the refugees will keep coming as sure as the sun will rise.

This morning we returned to the harbour. The sea is calm and life is going on. The tavernas are serving, the volunteers are back out here and a procession of new refugees make their way up the hill to the camp. The crisis is relentless, because the causes of the crisis are relentless.

And as long as the EU refuses to grant these refugees safe legal passage, the smugglers will continue to exploit them. Ultimately, it is our governments with the power, resources and responsibility to act, who I hold responsible for what happened last night; and what is happening in so many nights in so many places across Europe now.

One of the doctors saving lives at the harbour last night, Zakia from the UK, told me this morning that the odds of those children were never good, after being in the water for so long. “Especially here on the island, the hospitals just aren’t equipped to deal with this kind of catastrophe. You need surgeons trained to perform tracheotomies, oxygen, ventilation… To be honest, when they’ve taken in that much water, even if you can get the heart beating again, really the best thing you can do is hold them.” I did that. And that brings me some comfort, but not much.

What we really need, is safe passage for the refugees. Now.

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